Not too deep: Privacy, resistance, and the incorporation of social media in background checks


  • Sarah Young University of Arizona



Background investigations, open source intelligence, privacy, security clearances, social media


In May 2016, the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued “Security Executive Agent Directive 5” (SEAD-5) (U.S. ODNI, 2016) authorizing the collection, use, and retention of social media information for the personnel security clearance process (PSCP), a process put in place to screen applicants for eligibility for national security and public trust positions. The incorporation of social media was a watershed moment for this process as social media, and even information from the entire Internet, had not been allowed into the investigation process before. The integration was not without resistance to the implementation, though, and backstage concerns about privacy emerged in Congressional hearings. What is most interesting to note, however, is that the resistance was for the most part in support of privacy for the potential employees of whom were receiving the check and the government’s obligations for the information collection; however, there was little, if any, mention of deeper, possibly problematic privacy concerns for the social media platforms and their mediated connections that co-create a second, derivative type of content beyond the access of their users. This paper examines the hearing “Incorporating social media into federal background investigations” in response to the SEAD-5 to see what the U.S. Congress did and did not discuss at the hearing and explores potential explanations for the inclusions/omissions, ultimately answering how those in charge of policies could have overlook deeper privacy complexities, and evaluating what this can mean for government, privacy, and policy researchers.

Author Biography

Sarah Young, University of Arizona

Sarah Young was a LEaDing Fellows Postdoc, Media and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands during the writing of this work. She is now an instructor at the University of Arizona’s School of Information and fellow at the Center for Quantum Networks.




How to Cite

Young, S. (2021). Not too deep: Privacy, resistance, and the incorporation of social media in background checks. First Monday, 26(9).